strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Like Studying Stars that Have Blinked Out

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2012

On average, it takes 21 years from the time a new species is collected before scientists get around to describing it.  That delay can make a life-or-death difference in the middle of an extinction crisis.  Here’s a report from Carrie Arnold at Science Magazine:

High in the Himalayas in 2008, a tiny flash of yellow caught Paul Egan’s eye. The poppy intrigued the doctoral student in botany at Trinity College Dublin, as he was alreadyattempting to study the ecology of several species of Himalayan poppy. Egan extensively documented the bright yellow blooms that he found, tentatively concluding that this flower was a new species. However, he eventually figured out that other scientists had collected samples of the same flower starting in the 1960s but didn’t realize it was new. The samples sat on shelves for nearly 50 years, until Egan finally published the first formal description of Meconopsis autumnalis and the closely related M. manasluensis last year in the journal Phytotaxa.

Such a delay is not unusual, a study published today in Current Biology finds. On average, more than 2 decades pass between the first collection of samples of a new species and the publication of the species’ description in scientific literature. With species falling into extinction at record rates, many already-collected organisms may die out before they ever make it into scientific literature, researchers say.

Read more here.

Or take a look at the report from ScienceDaily:

Many of the world’s most unfamiliar species are just sitting around on museum shelves collecting dust. That’s according to a report in the November 20th issue of the Cell Press journal Current Biology showing that it takes more than 20 years on average before a species, newly collected, will be described.

It’s a measure the researchers refer to as the species’ “shelf life,” and that long shelf life means that any conservation attempts for unknown, threatened species could come much too late. The problem, the researchers say, is due to a lack of experts and of the funding and resources needed to do the job.

“Species new to science are almost never recognized as such in the field,” says Benoît Fontaine of Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. “Our study explains why it often happens that we describe species which were collected alive decades ago and which can be extinct now — just as astronomers study the light of stars which do not exist anymore.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

The Species Sideshow

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 20, 2012

Coconut octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus, described in 1964 by Taki), from the western Pacific. The common name is said to come from its habit of using coconut shell halves as hiding places.

Choose one: A riddle wrapped up in an enigma. Or: A hairy frog fish (Antennarius striatus, described in 1794 by British Museum naturalist George Shaw) from Indonesia (Photo: Gary Peart)

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Mathematics of Being Down a Blind Allee

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 13, 2012

African wild dogs in Botswana, photographed by Chris Johns for our 1999 National Geographic cover story

One of my failings as a writer is an almost total lack of formal science education.  Another is that anything mathematical gives me the willies.  So I was not previously aware of the Allee Threshold, the point at which a small population starts to decline more quickly than might have been expected, nor had I heard of Allee Effects.  And I should probably steer clear of a paper about the mathematics of Allee Effects.

But this paper has to do with one of favorite animals, the highly threatened African wild dog (Lycaon pictus).  I wrote about them in National Geographic in 1999, and again in my 2009 book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time.  Last I heard, the wild dog population has actually increased over the past decade, because of intensive conservation efforts and the discovery of new populations.  So with that caveat, here’s the press release from ScienceDaily:

Disease, destruction of habitats, pollution, chemical and pesticide use, increased UV-B radiation, and even the presence of new species are some of the causes for disappearing species. “Allee effect,” the phenomenon by which a population’s growth declines at low densities, is another key reason for perishing populations, and is an overriding feature of a paper published last month in the SIAM Journal on Applied Mathematics.

Authors Avner Friedman and Abdul-Aziz Yakubu use mathematical modeling to analyze the impact of disease, animal migrations and Allee effects in maintaining biodiversity. Some Allee effect causes in smaller and less dense populations are challenges faced in finding mating partners, genetic inbreeding, and cooperative behaviors such as group feeding and defense. The Allee threshold in such a population is the population below which it is likely to go extinct, and above which persistence is possible. Declining populations that are known to exhibit Allee effects currently include the African wild dog and the Florida panther.

Author Abdul-Aziz Yakubu explains how disease can Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

Our Undiscovered Earth

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 12, 2012

Out of its depths

I’m still playing catch up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (no damage but no power at home), and a reporting trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  This item by Michael McCarthy in The Independent caught my eye, about finding a whale no one had ever seen before, and what that suggests about how much we still need to learn about life on Earth:

We all know the baleen whales, which have baleen plates, or giant filters in their mouths to trap plankton, because these 15 or so species include the world’s biggest animals, such as the blue whale and the humpback, and around British coasts, the minke whale. And we all know the toothed whales, because this group of 50-plus species includes all the dolphins and porpoises, and other very familiar creatures such as the sperm whale – Moby Dick in Melville’s epic – and the orca or killer whale, and the white whale, the beluga.

But the beaked whales are largely a mystery, to zoologists as well as to general wildlife enthusiasts. Cuvier’s beaked whale, Gervais’ beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, Sowerby’s beaked whale – ever heard of any of them? Top of the class if you have. This group of about 20 species is undoubtedly the least-known of all marine mammals, and very likely the least known large mammals on earth, because they spend much of their time at tremendous depths in the ocean, feeding on squid, and are rarely encountered on the surface.

I have always been fascinated by them, so I was even more fascinated to learn that the rarest of them all has just been seen and described for the first time. This is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, New Species Discoveries | Leave a Comment »

Looking at the American Landscape

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 29, 2012

Wisconsin road by Gregory Conniff

I am about to run away from Hurricane Sandy and not sure when I will be able to post next.  But I’d like to put in a plug for my brother Greg Conniff’s photography show at a gallery in Madison, Wisconsin.  His photographs are about the American landscape, and how we have altered it, and they are worth savoring.  The show runs until December 23.  He’ll also be posting daily on his Tumblr blog.

Posted in Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

A Good Handful of Sea Snakes

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 26, 2012

The great heyday of natural history museums is over, and nowadays, these institutions, and their vast backrooms of aging specimen collections, tend to be badly funded, or even completely put out of business.

But they also continue to produce surprises, including the discovery of new species.  Here’s a ScienceDaily account of a newly found sea snake, Aipysurus mosaicus, from a museum in Copenhagen.

In a formalin-filled jar in Copenhagen Natural History Museum, a new snake species has recently been discovered.

“Museums are probably full of undiscovered species, and are an invaluable archive worthy of protection, just like the jungle itself,” says Johan Elmberg, professor of animal ecology at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

The newly discovered mosaic sea snake, named after its unusually patterned skin, which looks just like a Roman floor mosaic, lives in one of the world’s most endangered environments — the tropical coral reefs around Northern Australia and Southern New Guinea.

“Sea snakes are a good indicator of how the coral reefs and other precious ecosystems are doing. If there are snakes left in the environment it shows that the reefs are healthy and intact,” says Johan Elmberg.

The new sea snake was found by chance by Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation and Extinction | Leave a Comment »

Educate Boys and Girls Equally. Both Matter.

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 25, 2012

I believe in increasing educational opportunities for girls.  But I am disturbed by what seems to be a corresponding tendency to trivialize education of boys. Look on the internet, and you will see the idea sanctified with a supposed African proverb:  “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”

As far as I have been able to tell (and please correct me if anybody out there can point out an actual African origin), this fantasy “African proverb” is actually a sort of Reader’s Digest condensation of a thought in Greg Mortenson’s book Three Cups of Tea.

Here’s what Mortenson wrote:

“Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in cities. But the girls stay home, become leaders in the community and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

So here’s a better condensation of the first half of what Mortenson wrote:  “Educate a boy and you educate a city,” and thus perhaps a nation.

And regarding the second half:  Isn’t it kind of patronizing to think that all you do when you educate a girl is educate a village?

Malala Yousafzai was reaching a little higher than that.  Boys can, too.

Posted in The Primate File | Leave a Comment »

Sorry, What? Gaga Ferns and Bootylicious Horseflies

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 24, 2012

Lady Gaga and namesake fern gametophyte.

Weird science, from ScienceDaily:

Pop music megastar Lady Gaga is being honored with the name of a new genus of ferns found in Central and South America, Mexico, Arizona and Texas. A genus is a group of closely related species; in this case, 19 species of ferns will carry the name Gaga.

At one stage of its life, the new genus Gaga has somewhat fluid definitions of gender and bears a striking resemblance to one of Gaga’s famous costumes. Members of the new genus also bear a distinct DNA sequence spelling GAGA.

Two of the species in the Gaga genus are new to science: Gaga germanotta from Costa Rica is named to honor the family of the artist, who was born Stefani Germanotta. And a newly discovered Mexican species is being dubbed Gaga monstraparva (literally monster-little) in honor of Gaga’s fans, whom she calls “little monsters.”

“We wanted to name this genus for Lady Gaga because of her fervent defense of equality and individual expression,” said study leader Kathleen Pryer, a Duke University biology professor and director of the Duke Herbarium. “And as we started to consider it, the ferns themselves gave us more reasons why it was a good choice.”

For example, in her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards, Lady Gaga wore a heart-shaped Armani Prive’ costume with giant shoulders that looked, to Pryer’s trained eyes, exactly like the bisexual reproductive stage of the ferns, called a gametophyte. It was even the right shade of light green. The way the fern extends its new leaves in a clenched little ball also reminds Pryer of Gaga’s claw-like “paws up” salute to her fans.

The clincher came when Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Species Classification | Leave a Comment »

Why Flies? Maybe for Fish Farm Feed

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 24, 2012

Salmon feeder? (SEM by MicroAngela)

In my book Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World, I included a chapter with the headline, “Why Did God Make Flies?”

Now we know, thanks to this intriguing report from NPR’s Eliza Barclay.  Recycled maggots, anyone?

What’s the lowly house fly got to do with the $60 billion fish farming industry?

Quite a lot, says Jason Drew, a jet-setting British entrepreneur who is so enthusiastic about the potential of flies, he’s just written a book called The Story of the Fly and How It Could Save the World. He thinks flies can solve one of aquaculture’s most vexing issues: what to feed the growing ranks of farmed fish.

Farm-raised salmon, trout and shrimp need a lot of animal protein in their diet. Right now, that protein comes mainly from small, wild fish that are turned into fish meal. It takes about 3 pounds of fish to produce 1 pound of farmed salmon, and as we continue to deplete wild fish stocks, fisheries experts say we’re going to run out.

And so aquaculture experts all over the world are scrambling to figure out what to do about it.

A few years back, Drew was checking out some farms in Saudi Arabia that were exporting chicken and shrimp to South Africa, where he lives. He saw all the fish meal going to feed those creatures, and got to thinking just how unsustainable it was.

He also noticed, he says, that “the price of fish meal was moving in one direction only: up. Unless we find a new sea.”

At a slaughterhouse in Saudi Arabia, he stumbled upon what could become the new sea: a huge pond of blood, buzzing with flies. After consulting with some scientists, Drew became convinced that flies could recycle Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

Elephant Poo Air Conditioning

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 23, 2012

Dung beetle in booties

Apparently, elephant excrement is the next best thing to a Frigidaire window unit, if you are a dung beetle, according to researchers studying how the beetles roll balls of dung across the desert to their nest, in South Africa:

“The beetles climb on top of their moist balls whenever their front legs and heads overheat,” said Prof. Marcus Byrne from Wits University. “We stumbled upon this behaviour by accident while watching for an ‘orientation dance’ which the beetles perform on top of their balls to work out where they’re going. We noticed that they climbed their balls much more often in the heat of the midday sun.”

Further experiments showed that this midday phenomenon only held true when the beetles were crossing hot ground. In fact, beetles on hot soil climb their balls seven times as often as those on cooler ground.

To show that it was the beetles’ hot legs that made them climb the ball, the researchers applied some cool (as in temperature) silicone boots to their front legs as alternative protection from the heat. “To our great surprise, this actually worked, and beetles with boots on climbed their balls less often,” said Dr Jochen Smolka from Lund University, who collaborated on the research.

You have to love any study that involves putting booties on dung beetles.  And one last bit of ickiness:

Once on top of a ball at midday, the beetles were often seen “wiping their faces,” a preening behavior that the researchers suspect spreads regurgitated liquid onto their legs and head to cool them down further. That’s something the insects never do at other times of day.

Source:  Jochen Smolka, Emily Baird, Marcus J. Byrne, Basil el Jundi, Eric J. Warrant, Marie Dacke. Dung beetles use their dung ball as a mobile thermal refuge. Current Biology, 2012; 22 (20): R863 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.08.057

Posted in Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »